HealthcareIssuesState HouseThe SessionTexas Heartbeat Bill Dies in the House

With several states passing bills this year that ban abortion once a heartbeat is detected, similar legislation never made it to the House floor.
May 9, 2019
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On Tuesday, Georgia became the sixth state to sign a fetal heartbeat bill into law. The bill prohibits abortion as soon as an unborn child’s heartbeat is detected, which usually occurs around six weeks after gestation.

After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill removing abortion from that state’s penal code and effectively allowing abortion at any point in a pregnancy, some 15 states introduced measures to ban abortions as early as six weeks into the pregnancy.

Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) of the House Freedom Caucus introduced his rendition of a heartbeat bill in early February, which would have provided similar protections for the unborn in Texas.

The bill was referred to the Committee on Public Health, chaired by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston). The heartbeat bill was never given a committee hearing and essentially died earlier this week, becoming an early legislative casualty for the session.

Rep. Cain told the Texan that he was “disappointed that HB 1500 was referred to a committee chaired by a Democrat.”

Cain built a coalition of over 60 sponsors for the Texas Heartbeat Bill and his office reported that they submitted all necessary information to the Public Health Committee to request a hearing.

The request was not granted.

The Speaker of the House is empowered with the responsibility to select the chair of each standing committee per Section 15 of the Rules of the House of Representatives. The Texan reached out to Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s office for comment on why the bill was referred to Thompson’s committee this session, but did not receive a response.

Under current Texas law, abortions are illegal 20 weeks post-fertilization, unless there is a life-threatening medical condition or the unborn child has a severe abnormality.

When asked to comment about HB 1500 in the context of similar successful efforts to pass heartbeat legislation in other states, Nan Tolson, deputy press secretary for Governor Greg Abbott, was unequivocal about the governor’s posture.

“Fighting for the unborn will always be a top priority for Governor Abbott. That is why he has fought to make Texas a leader in defending innocent life. The Governor is continuing to work with members of the legislature to take steps this session to further protect the rights of our most vulnerable – the unborn,” Tolson said.

Thus far, however, no bills have been passed this session that expands protections for the unborn at earlier stages of development.

According to Americans United for Life (AUL), a national organization that analyzes each states’ legal protections for human life, Texas ranked no. 13 on its 2019 Life List. This largely comports with a 2019 Guttmacher Institute study showing 10 other states with protections for the unborn at earlier stages of development.

The Texan contacted the two largest pro-life organizations in Texas to get their perspective on Rep. Cain’s heartbeat bill never making it out of committee. 

Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life said, “Our goal is to completely protect unborn babies from abortion beginning at fertilization. However, at this time we are not recommending the Texas Legislature support the heartbeat bill and other bills that have little chance of surviving a federal court challenge.”

He continued, “The bad precedent of a loss will be used to strike down more pro-life laws in Texas and other states. The 2016 loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt in which the Supreme Court struck down safety regulations at abortion facilities has been used to strike down a number of laws in other states. It is heartbreaking to see that happen in state after state.”

Kim Schwartz, director of media and communication with Texas Right to Life commended Cain on his efforts, stating that, “Rep. Cain shares our goal of ending elective abortion in Texas and in the United States.”

When asked why Texas has not responded like Georgia, Ohio, and other states that have passed heartbeat bills this year, Schwartz said, “The Texas House of Representatives is slow on passing any abortion bills. All the House versions of pro-life priority bills are dead now.  Thankfully the Senate has responded with zeal for the pro-life cause like Georgia. Now, all pro-life Texans need to ask their state representatives to respond and make Texas among the top pro-life states again.”

Texas Right to Life gave Cain a 100 percent rating on their legislative scorecard in the 85th Legislature. Thompson, the chair of the committee overseeing the fate of the heartbeat bill, has consistently been given a zero rating during her tenure.

The seemingly disjointed approach between some advocacy groups seeking to advance pro-life causes and the lawmakers carrying pro-life legislation appears to be a reflection of different strategies, considerations, and perspectives on the best path forward.

In an interview with conservative talk radio host Mark Davis this morning, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick was also asked why Texas had not passed a heartbeat bill. Patrick argued that while the bill was the topic of much discussion among pro-life advocates, it was ultimately determined to not be the highest priority because the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to settle the issue.

Rep. Mike Lang (R-Granbury), chair of the House Freedom Caucus and a supporter of the heartbeat bill, told the Texan, “The Freedom Caucus vigorously pursues laws that save lives of pre-born babies, present new challenges to Roe v. Wade, and further life-affirming cultural messages, while simultaneously fighting for the abolition of abortion by all lawful and constitutional means.”

Lang summarized the current pro-life legislative landscape with a suggestion for how advocates should operate in future sessions.

“When pro-life groups and legislators worry less about the judicial aspect of saving innocent lives and more about doing what is right, we will have more pro-life victories,” Lang said.

The deadline for all other Texas House bills to be heard on the floor is midnight tonight.

Tony Guajardo

Tony Guajardo

Tony Guajardo is a reporter for The Texan. He has been involved in politics since the fall of 2012 when he served as an intern for the now-retired U.S. Congressman Charlie Gonzalez (D-San Antonio). He is a native of Fort Worth, Texas and graduated from Texas A&M University.